Go to India!
Dad gets promotion but it means moving from Cambridge where I grew up, to its rival Oxford. Just inside the Oxford Ring Road, the new family home is in Old Marston two miles from the even smaller village Elsfield, resting place of Baron Tweedsmuir, former Governor General of Canada – better known as writer John Buchan author of The 39 Steps. With a 12th century church and eight pubs, the area was active during the English Civil War where Oliver Cromwell stayed one night in the old farmhouse on the corner of our street. Unlike Cambridge, you can’t avoid the Civil War when in Oxford and a stone’s throw from our garden, another house bears a blue plaque commemorating where the negotiations between the Royalists and Roundheads took place to end the war.
But for most of the family, this New Beginning is a disaster. Mum dies from cancer two years later, my brother’s and sister’s school goes comprehensive and standards go down the toilet. And yours truly writes off Dad’s pride and joy – a blue and white Ford Anglia (just like in Harry Potter) two months after he finishes paying for it.
After an undistinguished effort doing A levels at Cambridgeshire College of Art and Technology during which time history lecturer Tom Sharpe gets his first novel published, I am at Oxford College of Further Education on Cowley Road. Switching from Maths where calculus is impossible, to English A level proves a good move – the lecturers open up a whole new world for me in a subject that never held much interest. One of the lecturers hands back a short story grinning from ear to ear telling me – you can write! But in the follies of youth, I do nothing with it until I get a writing coach years later.
Sadly, A level grades turn out to be awful again so no uni for me. Had I got to Queen Mary College, I would have bumped into Peter Hain later Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but notorious in his student days for not buying a round. And journalist/author Peter Hitchens is a classmate although quite Left Wing in those days.
Among my fellow students are a group of Thais who I end end visiting most evenings. The Thai food is delicious and the company welcoming – with some beautiful ladies too. Neng has a huge collection of albums and we listen to Traffic and Led Zeppelin. In quieter moments there, I sometimes read Winnie the Pooh stories where “Lines written by a Bear of Very Little Brain” have stuck:
On Monday, when the sun is hot
I wonder to myself a lot…
And in the days before writing off Dad’s car, I am a maniac at the wheel who can get from the Thais’ flat in Summertown to Old Marston in about 4 minutes – in the early hours when there is no traffic.
This is the time of Flower Power, the Beatles are in India learning transcendental meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and when I talk vaguely about seeing the world, a German student tells me Go to India! It is also the days of notices in bedsit windows “Sorry No Coloureds” and a protest against racism at a hairdresser next to the college makes the front page of The Oxford Mail when the police move in. Enoch Powell makes his rivers of blood speech shattering the innocence of youth.
My mother is dying from pancreatic cancer meaning that she is wasting away. With the pancreas being taken over by cancer, she is not able to digest any food. Coming back late one evening, she has passed out on the kitchen floor where she went to make some coffee. She did this by boiling milk in a saucepan which is still in her hand. Asking her if she is OK, she says not to worry and goes back upstairs to bed.
Go to Thailand
During one visit to Summertown, a girl’s brother Anussorn is down from Manchester where he is reading Electrical Engineering. Having spent the last 15 years in England, he wants to drive back home overland which many others are doing. Can I come too, I ask? Yes, if you share the cost.
This puts all future career plans on hold, as none of the starting salaries of any career jobs pay enough. Over a period of about a year, I work as a petrol pump attendant, porter in a parcel depot and lastly a bus conductor with all the overtime I can manage. It is a bit like doing a vacation job but for much longer.
The people I work with are ordinary working people and most but not all envy my forthcoming trip. One of my bus-driver mates says I am mad “What do you want to go to Thighland (sic) for?”
And it is an eye-opener how some ordinary people can turn out a bit unordinary. Two months after I leave, most of my colleagues at the parcel depot get the sack for thieving although rumour has it, the biggest rogue of the lot keeps his job. A fellow shift worker at the petrol station doesn’t turn up for work one day. Next day in The Oxford Mail his name is there having been arrested for mugging somebody. While the attack was two against one, the intended victim knew how to look after himself.
And one of my first bus-driver colleagues who enchanted me with stories of how beautiful his homeland of Kashmir was, gets jailed for murdering his wife a few months later. This is after a short police interview at the garage. What was the guy like to work with, the detective asked? Seemed OK to me, we spoke about the flowers in Kashmir – interview over! Attitudes of some of the Pakistani workers towards women are primitive where one young conductor tells me quietly, if we want to bump off one of our women, that’s basically our business.
Although saving furiously for the trip, there is time for fun too. Spring is approaching and the season of the Commem balls. Having always fancied going to a May Ball in Cambridge where I grew up, the fact that I am town rather than gown doesn’t bother anyone. Tickets for the Christ Church ball are still available and I turn up at the college office. How much are the tickets? Ten guineas and Led Zeppelin are top of the bill.
“Are there any left?”
“Er..Yes, you mean you actually want to buy one?” said the guy in the office – ticket sales have been slow.
Champagne on Frosties
I hand over the cheque and it is one of those nights one never forgets. My partner is Monica from Oxford College of Further Education and we turn up at the college in my first black tie event with Monica looking gorgeous in a long dress. A couple of other members of the town are there in two piece suits looking embarrassed and ridiculous – the tickets clearly said Black Tie etc.
My Thai friend Chai blags his way in without a ticket as he said would, and we dance away until dawn. My suspicion that Led Zeppelin would never actually perform is fully justified but Desmond Decker and the Aces do a good backing job. It turns out that Monica knows one of the band too. Breakfast arrives in the form of bowls of cereal and I am just about to go off and get some milk, when Monica reminds me that we should have champagne on our frosties instead. It is one of those lovely things one always remembers. A black and white picture taken by an enterprising photographer on the morning, shows me in my Moss Bros evening suit with mutton chop sideburns grinning from ear to ear with the beautiful Monica at my side.